STOKOWSKI'S Return to Philadelphia (1960) - PASC264

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STOKOWSKI'S Return to Philadelphia (1960) - PASC264

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MOZART Marriage of Figaro - Overture
FALLA El Amor Brujo
RESPIGHI The Pines of Rome
Recorded 1960
Total duration: 1hr 50:05

Shirley Verrett-Carter, mezzo-soprano
The Philadlephia Orchestra
conductor Leopold Stokowski

This set contains the following albums:

Stokowski's triumphant return to Philadelphia, 1960

First ever release, in transfers from the conductor's own tapes

We are very privileged to have access to the two tapes prepared for Stokowski by the original station that broadcast the concert, WFLN-FM in Philadelphia, which passed on the conductor's death first to his assistant Jack Baumgarten, and then on to Edward Johnson at the Stokowski Society.

It would appear both that these are direct copies of the actual broadcast tapes (which would have been played out a few days after the concert itself, with commentary added after the concert), and that the stereo broadcast has never been heard properly. The commentary here was recorded in standard stereo, but the entire concert was encoded in Mid-Side (MS) stereo, a format used mainly for broadcast purposes and not designed to be replayed without considerable technical intervention to recreate a proper stereo image. Prior to this correction, one would hear the M (or mono) signal from the left speaker and the difference (the S or side component which contains the stereo spacial information) from the right speaker, creating a very bizarre and confusing soundstage. I have corrected this and inserted small fades between radio commentary and music to cover the abrupt cut edits of the original.

Soncially the recording is otherwise very similar to the original tapes, with very minor adjustments to equalisation and a degree of convolution reverb added (reverb was required for previous Philadelphia issues by Baumgarten) to ameliorate a very dry acoustic caused by close miking, probably in order to get a good stereo spread with the Academy's narrow proscenium and cut down on audience noise. A very small amount of pitch flutter is occasionally apparent towards the end of the first half, but otherwise sound quality is excellent.

In the process of researching this release, I learned the following from Mark Obert-Thorn, who is based close to the city of Philadelphia:

    The original station that broadcast the concert was WFLN-FM in Philadelphia (now changed to a rock station with different call letters).  The engineering was supervised by Albert L. Borkow, Jr., whose company, Magnetic Recorder and Reproducer, produced the broadcasts.
    The PO only started broadcasting in stereo beginning with the concerts of January, 1960, so Stokowski chose a good time to come back.  This was only the seventh concert to be recorded by this team.  Prior to this, CBS had broadcast concerts sporadically through the 1950s.  The WFLN series lasted with few interruptions weekly into the 1980s.
    There are oddities to these early stereo concerts.  Magnetic's mixing boards were primitive, so when the outros had to be recorded over the applause at the end of a work, the applause was re-recorded and mono-ed out on one track (often at a much lower volume level) and the announcements added to the other track.  Also, pauses between movements were often not shortened for broadcast.  (I have a WFLN tape of Silvestri conducting Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony where there is about a two-minute long stretch of audience noise after the first movement!)

As Mark points out, there were some very long sections of applause in the original broadcast. These have been edited down to something more appropriate. I have retained all the announcements, which are mainly provided by the Philadelphia Orchestra's then assistant conductor, William Smith. The broadcast concluded with a short speech by Stokowski, made facing his audience at the end of the concert, and this too has been retained.

Andrew Rose

  • MOZART Marriage of Figaro - Overture

  • DE FALLA El Amor Brujo

  • RESPIGHI The Pines of Rome

  • SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 47

Shirley Verrett-Carter
, mezzo-soprano
The Philadelphia Orchestra
conductor Leopold Stokowski

XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, December 2010
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Leopold Stokowski

Total duration: 1 hr 50:05

Fanfare Review

Stokowski’s special magic with the massed strings makes for a level of intensity that’s hard to match

There was excitement in Philadelphia in January 1959 when it was announced that Leopold Stokowski would be returning to town the following year to appear with the orchestra that he had last led in 1940. In an interview, he described himself as “very pleased,” adding, “but it took a long time, didn’t it?” Eager patrons had to wait until February 12, 1960, for the big night. Needless to say, the Academy of Music was packed and enthusiastic. Those who were unlucky enough not to have tickets had to content themselves with the radio broadcast. I have read that some subscribers were offered $50 for their tickets (that’s more than $360 in 2011 dollars). Many in attendance remembered him from his long tenure with the orchestra. Not taking any chances, the maestro had chosen a program of virtually conductor-proof pieces. The results were predictable and the recording serves as evidence. Except for the Mozart overture, he had already made excellent recordings of these works. The only thing on this concert that he went on to record again was the Falla, with a young mezzo who was then billed as “Shirley Verrett-Carter.” He had hoped to record in the scene of his former triumphs, the venerable Academy of Music, but was disappointed to discover that the sound had dried up quite a bit since his days there. His assistant, Jack Baumgarten, told me that Stokowski was inclined to blame the installation of an organ during the 1940s for what he considered the deterioration of the hall’s sound.

During his radio remarks that preceded the concert, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, William R. Smith, mentioned that Stokowski was using his radical reseating of the players, with most of the strings on stage right and center, basses lining the back wall, and winds, brass, and percussion at stage left. I find this knowledge quite vexing because, even with headphones, I cannot perceive a clear, obvious placement of the instruments. There is some but, really, very little directionality—yes, the violins seem to be to my left and a few brass instruments and some percussion seem to be emerging from my right speaker, but the winds seem to wander; I can easily imagine most of them seated in their customary spots in the center. If this is a stereo recording, as Pristine claims, it has about the narrowest spread of any stereo recording I’ve ever heard; it sounds almost like some sort of “enhanced” mono to me. That is not to say that it sounds bad; it’s quite powerful and vivid, and the combination of this conductor and this music, not surprisingly, turns out to be a surefire winner. It has been said that the orchestra played as if he had never left, easily shifting into its Stokowskian mode despite the passing of 19 years and the presence of new players (there were 36 Stokowski alumni remaining plus a few former members of his All-American Orchestra). I should point out that Ormandy had his own sound, as Stokowski had his; they were not peas from the same pod. Interestingly, when Stokowski and Verrett made their studio recording of the Falla shortly thereafter, probably in the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel, the orchestra, perhaps at the producer’s urging, was seated more conventionally, with violins on the listener’s left and violas and cellos on the right.

How can I possibly describe these performances? How can a conductor possibly ruin The Marriage of Figaro Overture? Stokowski certainly doesn’t, but Mozart doesn’t give him the opportunities that later composers did. The Falla, though intensely impassioned and ravishingly played, is, I think, even narrowly surpassed by the studio recording, which is my absolute favorite El amor brujo. Verrett is nearly perfect: The voice is appropriately dark without being inappropriately heavy and she doesn’t knock herself out trying to sound gutsy. And listen to that juicy string playing! The performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome is one very good one among many, not unlike his Symphony of the Air recording. Stokowski’s association with Shostakovich’s music goes back to the 1920s and he made outstanding recordings of the First Symphony (twice), the Fifth (twice), Sixth (twice), and 11th, not all of them with the Philadelphia Orchestra (I regret that he never got around to Nos. 8 and 9). There was also a privately issued one of the 10th by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, also outstanding. This particular performance uses conventional tempos but Stokowski’s special magic with the massed strings makes for a level of intensity that’s hard to match, although I will concede that this symphony, like The Pines, has done well on recordings. Many highly anticipated “special occasions” don’t turn out to be particularly special, but this one apparently did and may have even caused some Philadelphians to subscribe to a whole series just so they could be there. There were probably few regrets about that.

James Miller

This article originally appeared in Issue 34:6 (July/Aug 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.